I have three related areas of research; each involves doing cognitive science to make progress on a philosophical problem. One explores the folk concept of self, especially the notion of a “true self” and its theoretical and normative implications. A second concerns developing new empirical methods to advance experimental philosophy and other areas of social scientific inquiry. And a third concerns improving reasoning and communication, including research in computer-aided pedagogy. These efforts have resulted in publications in Cognition; Review of Philosophy and Psychology, and Nature, Science of Learning.
The true-self concept in folk and scientific psychology
Both moral commonsense and scientific psychology distinguish action caused by persons from action caused by situations. Consider Darley and Batson's “Good Samaritan” study. All participants were asked to give a short sermon in a nearby building, but some were made to feel hurried while others were made to feel relaxed. On their way to the building, all participants—both hurried and relaxed—encountered a man, groaning and slumped in a doorway. Main result: hurried participants were six times less likely than relaxed participants to offer help.
Laypeople and social scientists tend to say that the hurried participants’ callous behavior is “caused by the situation”. But what does this mean and how do people classify actions along this dichotomy? According to social-psychological tradition, the “person/situation” distinction tracks how agents would behave across contextually specified classes of counterfactual circumstances. On these views, people prefer to explain hurried participants’ callousness in “situational” terms because they judge that in relevantly similar circumstances the hurried participants would have helped the victim (e.g., if they’d been more relaxed). However, this plausible-sounding view is subject to counterexample.
In contrast to the standard view, in a series of empirical studies I have found that people prefer to explain valenced actions in situational terms mostly because they suspect a mismatch in the moral valence of action and person. That is, people often judge that an action is explained by the situation because they judge that a good person is doing a bad deed or a bad person is doing a good deed. So if you want to predict whether someone will explain a valenced action in more agent-focused or more situation-focused terms, you can’t do better than to find out about that person’s moral attitudes towards the action; their beliefs about how the actor would have behaved in relevantly similar circumstances are surprisingly unimportant. If my view is correct, a central distinction of social science isn’t scientific at all—it’s normative.
Implications for normative theorizing. The mismatch hypothesis also has important implications for philosophical theorizing about moral responsibility. Many theorists have been attracted by the idea that we are responsible only for actions which are self-disclosing—i.e., for actions that reveal our true selves (e.g., Dewy, 1957; Frankfurt, 1971; Watson, 1996; Smith, 2005; Sripada, 2016). On these views, judgments about self-disclosure provide a nonmoral basis for judgments about praise and blame. I argue that this is exactly the wrong way round. Self-disclosure judgments reflect the same principles as the person/situation distinction: the concept of the true self and the person/situation distinction are two windows onto a single piece of moral psychology. That is, people judge that an action is self-disclosing because they judge that its valence matches the actor’s. If this is correct, self-disclosure judgments do not reveal an action-theoretic relation and cannot provide a nonmoral basis for judgments of praise and blame.
Modeling the true self. The mismatch view is not fully precise because it does not articulate the notion of a true self. The simplest story goes like this: agents possess a unitary moral “essence”, either good or bad, to which the moral valences of their actions are compared. More complex stories relativize agents’ moral characters to particular domains (for example, someone might be both honest and irascibile). These more complex versions suggest a connection between domain-relativized dispositions for action and moral evaluations. An agent who—in some contextually specified sense—usually performs an action of some kind discloses her true self when she performs that kind of action and does not disclose her true self when she performs a contrary type of action. Moral attitudes might then drive self-disclosure judgments by affecting the contextual specification. With my collaborator, Yoaav Isaacs, I explore the prospects for understanding these domain-relative dispositions using counterfactuals. We show that standard Lewisian semantics are unsatisfactory but that an analysis using Schulz’s (2014) arbitrary selection semantics is more promising. We describe experimental studies to test this view.
Sociobiological origins of the true-self concept. In my (2018) article (“When do circumstances excuse? Moral prejudices and beliefs about the true self drive preferences for agency-minimizing explanations”), I supported the mismatch hypothesis with new experiments and speculated about why humans represent the self as divided into deeper and more superficial parts (see §6.3). In current work I attempt to test these speculations using mathematical modeling and computer simulation. The basic ideas are borrowed from evolutionary game theory: the true-self concept helps to mitigate the costs of our sensitivity to moral moral norms.
Attribution and responsibility for “group actions”. To some people, the passage of the Patriot Act seemed to express the true nature of the United States (a “dispositional” explanation); to others, it seemed only to reflect the chaotic aftermath of 9/11 (a “situational” explanation). What explains these different views? Traditional attribution theory suggests that laypeople do causal attribution by assessing whether agents perform actions only in the presence of a situational pressure or whether they also perform those actions in the absence of that pressure. That is, on the traditional view, when people explain action (and attribute responsibility) they are primarily interested in causal information. In recent work (in preparation), Shamik Dasgupta and I argue that attitudes toward a nation’s “essence” cause people to emphasize more dispositional or situational explanations when explaining that nation’s actions. Paralleling experimental work on psychological essentialism (e.g., Meyer, Leslie, Gelman & Stilwell, 2013), we argue that people represent nations (and presumably other groups) as possessing underlying causally active moral essences. We then apply experimental paradigms from my work on individual attribution to argue that people rely on the same cognitive processes when explaining group actions, and we consider the implications for political discourse and practice.
oSocrates: elicit and measure concepts and other capacities
Eliciting people’s concepts is not straightforward, whether by introspection and talking-with-colleague-in-the-next-office or by some version of experimental philosophy. In “Survey-Driven Romanticism”, I argued that laypeople’s responses to x-phi surveys are often driven by “pragmatic influences” (implicatures, contrast effects, question order, etc.) and a range of errors (e.g., failure to read/understand the survey). While x-phi surveys have improved (e.g., “really knows” is rarely contrasted with “only believes”), fundamental methodological difficulties remain unaddressed. For, as all philosophers know, people often want to describe hypothetical cases differently after some reflection—philosophically interesting concepts are rarely immediately luminous. Ideally, we should elicit laypeople’s intuitions after they have reached something like reflective equilibrium, but that often requires something or someone external to prompt reflection.
My collaborators, Philip Chapkovski (Higher School of Economics, Moscow), Yoaav Isaacs (Baylor University), Neil Thomason (The University of Melbourne), and I have developed software (“oSocrates”) that aims to measure participants’ attitudes in “quasi-reflective equilibrium.” Our software groups players according to their prior beliefs about some question (e.g., Does a Gettier-ed agent know that p?), informs them of each other’s views about the question and that they and their fellows will be rewarded if and only if the group converges (in some suitably defined sense) on the “correct” response without detectable cheating. Players then enter discussions which are monitored for cheating by researchers or by further participants. We are now collecting pilot data and hope to release our software alongside experimental results early next year. We hypothesize that our method induces participants to overcome the effects of difficult-to-predict distortions and to apply their concepts correctly. To ensure that we’re not just eliciting WEIRD intuitions, we intend to compare data about seemingly analogous concepts from mono-lingual speakers of other languages, particularly non-IndoEuropean ones.
While our initial targets are concepts studied by philosophers, we expect this work to advance inquiry in fields far beyond experimental philosophy and social psychology.
Better reasoning and communication
My third project uses visualizations of the logical structures of arguments to help people reason and communicate more effectively. In preliminary experiments (since replicated), Vidushi Sharma and I found that visual presentation can dramatically reduce confirmation bias compared to prose, at least with some target arguments (short report shared on PhilPapers). In current studies, Danny Oppenheimer and I investigate whether this effect depends on the target argument appealing to values shared by the audience.
I have several other projects that aim to improve reasoning and communication, often focused on difficult moral, political and philosophical questions. So far my colleagues and I have produced:
This third set of projects has practical applications in education, industry and civic life. In the long run, I hope they will also help to deepen our understanding of human learning, communication, and decision making. A brief introduction to the fourth of these projects follows.
Better discussions. Whenever more than a few people have a discussion—in classrooms, faculty meetings, conferences, boardrooms, the UN, etc.—they face a problem: Who gets to speak and when? The most common solution—a moderator selects from among people who've raised their hands—seems terrible for many reasons. How do different moderation conventions affect group discussion, problem solving, and decision making, and how can we tell?
In ongoing studies, my collaborators and I are investigating how different moderation conventions affect the quality of discussions, problem solving, and decision making. Automated discussion moderation—and especially what I call “discussion markets”—can dramatically improve the quality of discussion. In a discussion market, an app supplies each participant with currency and auctions speaking time. When many people wish to contribute, the cost to speak rises, encouraging participants to defer contributions that they judge to be less urgent. Shy participants—who have contributed relatively little—can make higher bids and can therefore be prioritized in the queue.
I plan to study queuing systems by having groups of participants work on difficult problems (e.g., puzzles, LSAT Logical Reasoning questions, etc.) in the lab and online. Pilot results indicate that discussion markets do far better than (a) having each participant speak in turn, (b) having participants self-moderate, and (c) having one participant moderate using standard hand raising conventions.
Cullen Research Statement Page: 4